By Tom Stewart
I’ve said before in these little excursions into obscure DC history that the late ‘60s to late ‘70s was a time of great experiment, change, and a try-it-and-see-if-it-works mentality. Many old hands were let go or phased out, many new untested ones came aboard. Many series were brought forth with fanfare (Prez, Brother Power the Geek, New Gods) and then cancelled (Prez, Brother Power the Geek, New Gods) with little fanfare. Editorial Director, later Publisher, Carmine Infantino was trying to catch up to Marvel, and probably still disbelieving that Martin Goodman and nephew-by-marriage Stan Lee was outselling him at the stands.
Infantino was looking around for something that would garner attention on the racks, now thick with Marvel titles (Marvel pumped out a ton of reprint books trying to shove the Distinguished Competition off the racks). For the next several years he would try reprints, revivals of older characters, new characters, spinning off back-ups and secondary characters into their own titles, and licensing Tarzan and other Edgar Rice Burroughs characters in an effort to play catch up, all the time assured of the superiority of the DC brand. The books now more than ever, new and old, would live and die by the numbers. Running down that numbers list it couldn’t escape notice that one of DC’s most consistent selling characters, one created in 1940 and guest starring (special guest staring?) in several titles, books, movies and a prominent role in one of the most popular TV series of the 60s, never had his own series. The Joker, kicking around for over 30 years, bearing the scars of many jailbreaks and batarangs, never had a place to call his own (the Ha-Hacienda doesn’t count). The numbers told the story: Batman would have a spike in his titles when the Joker appeared. Writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’ recent revival of the original Joker, the insane homicidal clown with a need for crime and for taunting Batman, in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (Batman #351, Sept 1973), brought new life to the character, and new interest from the fans. As Denny O’Neil says:
“It works, it continues to work!”
The Joker’s ‘team-up’ with Batman (Brave and the Bold #111, Feb-March 1974) was one of the best-selling issues the title had up ‘til then. Psycho killer be damned! Here was a character just crying out for his own title, and Infantino, editor Julie Schwartz and Denny O’Neil would give it to him!
“I could sense the problems…”
Denny stopped by the DC offices on his usual day, dropping off work and looking to talk to any editor who might want to talk to him. “It would sometimes be Murray Boltinoff, or one of the others, but it’d usually be Julie”. By the early 70s, Denny had established himself as the closest thing DC had to a prestige writer, heading (along with artist Neal Adams) the re-vamping of Batman, the award-winning Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and the effort to update Superman (Denny never felt comfortable on Superman), all for editor Julie Schwartz. He was becoming Julie’s guy to start, or re-start, things, including the Joker.
“We’d been successful with a few projects had garnered some attention. Well, back in those days when hippies walked the earth, and the mountains bubbled, there were no set writers, there were no contracts, it was a very informal arrangement. It was about being reliable. ‘It may not be good, but you’ll have it on Thursday.”
So how did the Joker get his own series? Denny?
“Ha! I have no idea! I stopped by Julies’ office, and he said, ‘We’re going to do a Joker book’. I know that alarms went off, I could sense the problems that such a thing would entail…but it was a job. I didn’t see myself as a Batman writer. Julie kept giving me assignments and they were usually about Batman.”
And Denny’s thoughts on the character?
“He was and is the great trickster figure in all of pop culture, maybe in all of storytelling. But, in order for the Joker to work, in my opinion, he can’t be a nice guy, he can’t be amusing like a clown. There has to be a real element of danger. He might turn on you in a second. He is the antitheist of the Sherlockian detective. He represents totally irrationality. “
Which is why giving him his own series was something of a minefield. The last time a villain had his own series was the 50s, with the Jack Kirby/Joe Maneely/John Severin series, Yellow Claw. It ran from Oct 1956-April 1957, a short four issue run. And that was with Kirby!
Live By The Code
At this point, even though it had been weakened, The CCA (Comic Code Authority) was still around, and publishers still felt the need to have that ‘’Approved by the Comic Code Authority’ stamp in ever-shrinking prominence on their covers. Rules had been loosened (Drugs! Zombies! The word Weird appearing again on covers!), but no one was really sure how loose they had become.
Here’s writer Denny O’Neil:
“Comics were supposed to be totally unobjectionable to everyone on the planet.” Aimed squarely at the eight-year old boy with a quarter burning a hole in his pocket. “The reason we could push the envelope as much as we did, was because nobody knew what worked. When that’s the situation, they’re a lot more open to experimentation. My first impression of the place (of DC in the mid 60s) was that it was a bunch of colorless guys who didn’t enjoy themselves much. Julie was heads above the crowd but I don’t think he knew it.”
“Nobody knew what worked…” Not only were comics changing, but the audience for them was as well. Comics were being read by an older, and more vocal, crowd. The distribution system that had served comics for over 30 years was breaking down, forcing publishers to find new ways of getting their books to that new audience. Publishers were feeling their way into new territory were the old rules weren’t working and nobody knew what the new ones were.
So, what of the Comics Code?
“Well, that was one of the alarms that went off in my head. If you adhere to the letter of the code, the bad guy has to be caught at the end of the story, there has to be a strong suggestion that justice will be served. We have a continuing character that, by his very nature, is a criminal. He’s not the Joker if he’s Simon Templar the Saint, or Boston Blackie, guys who are ‘bad’ but are actually Robin Hoods. He’s the Joker, he’s got to be a vicious, unpredictable criminal. Ok, now fit that into the Comic Code as it was back then. I don’t think whoever made the decision to give him his own series realized that was a huge problem. Maybe they were thinking about the Joker of the 50s, the rottenest thing he did was maybe try to figure out someone’s secret identity.”
The Joker’s Not So Wild?
The first issue of The Joker, cover dated May, probably hit the stands around March of 1975 (I eagerly bought my copy from the Court St. 7-11, in beautiful Pasco WA), with story by Denny, art by under-rated Irv Novick with inks by Dick Giordano. In “The Joker’s Double Jeopardy”, Two-Face escapes Arkham Asylum, but refuses to take the Joker with him (hey, he tossed the coin and Joker lost, fair and square). This sets up the conflict for the issue, and really, the tone of the series. Each issue would feature another villain providing a sort of surrogate Batman for the Joker to work off of. The Joker was to be a sort of Brave and the Bold (the Batman team-up title) of villainy. It worked for Batman, why not Joker? That may not have been the intent, but that was the outcome.
Issue two (July, 1975) has the Joker teaming up, sort of, with Willie the Weeper, a self-proclaimed criminal mastermind with a problem: he weeps uncontrollably after each attempted heist. The Joker decides to help him, while helping himself to the loot. The Joker? Helping someone? Yeah, kinda. This issue also features a couple of hapless Arkham security guards, Benny and Marvin, who will reappear in later issues, before being dropped off the face of the DC Universe (not by the Joker, though that might have made an interesting story). The art is by Irv Novick, and inked by Jose Garcia Lopez in an early DC appearance.
The third issue (Oct 1975, “The Last Ha Ha!”) featured the return of that other laughing, green haired DC character, Steve Ditko’s Creeper, still bouncing around since the cancellation of his own title in 1969. This is also by O’Neil, featuring the Creeper working against, then with, and then against the Joker. Throw in nice Ernie ‘Chua’ Chan and Garcia Lopez art, a ‘Peanuts’ takeoff and you’ve got a show. This one is reprinted in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told.
Four (Dec 1975, “A Gold Star for the Joker”) had Garcia Lopez taking over the penciling (with Vince Colletta on the inks) and a new scripter, Elliot S! Maggin. For some reason, the Joker steals a bus, a driver’s uniform and drives to Star City (he is crazy) where he falls for Dinah Lance (The Black Canary, hey, he’s not that crazy!), and fights the Green Arrow, while stealing the star from Star City. He ends up falling off of the Star City Bridge. Will he survive...?
Number five (Feb 1976, “The Joker Goes ‘Wilde”) has him pretending to be the long-lost grandson of a deceased reclusive painter, and battling The Royal Flush Gang (the Rodney Dangerfield of DC villainy) for a group of paintings holding a secret. It was written by Martin Pasko, with an assist by science fiction legend (and former comics scripter) Alfred Bester.
Next issue (#6 Apr 1976, “Sherlock Stalks the Joker!”) brings Denny O’Neil back to the series to pit an actor who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes against the Joker (when I picked this up off the stands, I was wondering what the little white box in the corner of the cover with all the lines in it was. Yep, it was my first UPC symbol. Ah! Memories). The Joker is out to humiliate Mr. Holmes, even though Joker admits that, ‘he isn’t real, and I am!’. So the Joker does petty crimes, related to Sherlock’s cases, while being hunted by the man who would be Holmes. O’Neil (a Holmes fan), fills the story with lots of ‘in’ references to the Holmes cannon, and a couple real groaners as well. Art by Novick and Tex Blaisdell. Then it was back to Arkham.
Elliot S! is back for “Luthor—You’re Driving Me Sane!” (#7 June 1976, art by Novick and Frank McLaughlin) featuring Lex Luther in his 70s purple jumpsuit and rocket boots. This time the Joker and Luther get caught in a Luthor machine that sucks the crazy out of the Joker and spews it into Luthor…who doesn’t want to give it back! Maggin begins a three issue run here. Yes, even in 1975, publishers had a hard time keeping the same creative time on more than two issues in a row.
In number eight, (Aug 1976) the Joker meets the Scarecrow and laughing ensues. Irv Novick is back on art, as is Tex Blaisdell. Irv (1916-2004) was one of the old timers, drawing comics since 1939, an artist with a nice easy style, good storytelling and a sense of design. He always seemed surprised that people were interested in all those pictures he drew. He may have been drawing some of the World’s Greatest Superheroes, but it was just a job to Irv, and one he did well.
For the final issue, Maggin brought in Catwoman, (#9 Oct 1976, “The Cat and the Clown”), and threw in a movie comic and his trained cat. Both Irv and Tex are back for the last go around. The Joker disguises himself as the comic, is smacked by the Catwoman, who then steals the movie stars’ cat. In the end (SPOILER ALERT!) the Joker ends up back in his straitjacket and back in Arkham, forced to watch that week’s movie… about the comedian and his trained cat.
#10 was to be “99 and 99/100% Dead” by Martin Pasko, set with this story to take over as series writer. The story was drawn up (Martin still has the copies somewhere in all his boxes of stuff), but the decision had come down, The Joker had failed to escape the Arkham Asylum of cancellation.
Die by the Code
The Joker, no matter who was writing the book, suffered from the problems Denny O’Neil points out:
“You can’t kill him, you can’t even reasonably put him in jail without stretching the suspension of disbelief. He has to break out of jail every month. Now it wouldn’t be a problem. The medium has changed, some say matured, some say reverted… I would be in the matured camp. “
Of course, this is the rut The Joker fell into right from the beginning. Each issue would have him either escaping, or just escaped, meeting the guest villain (sometime hero) and then ending up back in Arkham at the end (or at least looking like the law was about to clamp down hard on his little purple gloves). What was a self-respecting homicidal psycho to do?
It was a problem the series never really solved. Denny?
“In The Jokers Five Way Revenge we had him kill five people. You couldn’t get away with that in the series, at least I don’t think so...’
Which brings up an interesting point. Of the nine bi-monthly issues of The Joker, (May 1975-Sept/Oct 1976) Denny wrote four, Elliot S! Maggin wrote four, and Martin Pasko wrote one (well, two, but one went unpublished). In all Denny’s issues, the Joker kills but one of his thugs by tossing him down an incinerator chute (#2, “The Sad Saga of Willie the Weeper”), but in Elliot Maggin’s issues, the Joker does away with 8 unlucky souls, and in Martin Pasko’s one published story, 3 people are offed. Maybe the CCA could have been pushed a bit more than Denny thought. Not to condone murder, of course. But more killing wasn’t the problem. The Joker was just too sane. He was operating on a half tank of crazy and it seemed off, like the later Marx Brothers films where the brothers would help the young lovers instead of make fun of them. The Joker worked best as an antagonist, taunting, bedeviling, ruthless and driving the hero as insane as he was. In the future development of the character, this series would be pretty much ignored. Everyone moved on.
As a ten-year-old, eagerly buying almost everything DC put out (except the last few romance comics, those turned you into a girl just by looking though them), specializing in anything Batman, I snapped up all the issues of The Joker, but until I went back and read them again, I really didn’t remember them all that well. I remembered that Catwoman was in there somewhere, and the Creeper, but I couldn’t tell you a plot to save my collection of 7-11 DC Slurpee cups; they didn’t make an impression. I read them, and then they joined the stack in the closet, to be thumbed through but not read again until I started researching this article.
When Denny himself became the overall editor of Batman, he ignored this series, as would future Joker writers.
He didn’t even bring back poor Benny and Marvin.
This originally ran in TwoMorrows Publishing’s Back Issue Magazine. Since then, the Joker’s only gotten bigger, badder and uglier. The entire 1970s series (and other 70s appearances) was recently reprinted in the Joker Omnibus from DC. Along with the reprints is the never officially publish Joker #10, It’s ain’t cheap, but you might want to pick it up, lot’s of good reading in there.
Copyright 2019, Tom Stewart.